Sunday, 6 January 2008

I awoke to a bright new day, already hot at the crack of nine o clock.
A trifle fuzzy headed, I packed the rucsack and took my leave. As the sun climbed so did the temperature…..a real tabloid “Phew what a scorcher” day. I walked into Harleston and stocked up on provisions. It would have felt more authentic buying beef jerky and beans….but Budgens were all out of real pioneer chow. I settled for yet more Pot noodles, Custard Creams and tinned pineapple. I did treat myself to a cup of coffee in an attractive pavement cafĂ©….catching a snatch of a conversation about Scottish people…how they were foreigners…but damned fine engineers..

The angles way squirmed out of Harleston via backyards , allotment tracks and half hidden footpaths. This was a most enjoyable section of the walk, taking in lush water meadows full of wild flowers and equally wild cattle. The sun blazed down and in between boggy patches where I had to squelch through the mud, I amused myself by imagining I was lost in the outback without water. The illusion was greatly enhanced by the buzzards circling overhead. I hadn’t seen one in East Anglia before…and now they seemed to be accompanying me. I had heard that they go for the eyeballs first….so determined to use my dying breath to roll over onto my front. Buzzards have a rather pathetic call like a cat mewing. Deceptive no doubt…just like cats. I remember a cat lover saying to me
“ I have no illusions about Felix…if he were big enough...I’m sure he’d eat me with no compunction”

Later, I came across two bewildered looking walkers clutching a map.
“We’ve been lost four times…and we’ve only come about a mile!” said the hot and harassed female member of the pair.
“Tut! Mary, why do you always exaggerate everything so much ?” snorted the equally hot , sticky and somewhat peevish map-clutching male. He blundered on while she paused for breath and warned me about the jungle conditions ahead.

She wasn’t exaggerating this time. Nettles grew head high and were overhung by brambles and pretty dog roses protected by vicious hooked thorns. A million flies clearly found all this to their liking and plastered my sweaty face each time I dared to pause to catch my breath. Once more I slopped on 100% Deet fly repellent….squirting it on hat shirt and…for good measure…socks.

But these were real flies…not the wimpy kind found in Malaysia and easily conquered with a quick spray of instant insect death. It was an entomologist’s dream. Great strapping horseflies circling with a menacing low pitched drone; midges and mosquitoes attacking the exposed flabby bits with needle sharpness whilst screaming at frequencies beyond the hearing of a pitch perfect bat.

Various other unidentifiable flying tormentors launched themselves from the razor edged briars and brambles to try their luck at draining my vital fluids. The nettles stung through my lightweight walking trousers. It took me back to my first few days on the trail all that time ago reading my Jungle Warfare for Beginners book. I hacked and thrashed at the undergrowth …trampled the nettles with a version of the Monty Python silly walk…leg extended at right angles …placed against the knotted and gnarled trunk of the nettle barring my path and then brought down sharply thus flattening the stem. In theory. Usually I plunged forward, my foot slipped off the nettle and the now aggravated specimen smacked me full in the chops.

I bashed on like this for several weeks…or maybe it was only hours. Near to total exhaustion I eventually minced into the safe haven of The Willows camping site near Scole. A beautiful site run by smashing people. Grass mown and neatly edged. facilities all clean and plentiful. I received a warm welcome and subsequently, an even warmer shower.

Semi-human once more, I phoned my good friend Lynda who lived nearby. With only two more days walking ahead, the end of my journey was in sight. We agreed to eat out together that evening as a kind of celebration . I would have gladly rustled up a little something for her back at the tent.…but imagined that her first reaction would have been to ask “ My God...what on earth is that little something?? “

After a number of false starts and several mobile phone calls, we eventually met up within a mile or so of where we had planned to.
I felt really good about my day’s tally of 12 miles through the all but impenetrable everglades of the Diss delta. I sat in Lynda’s car, changed and scrubbed and related my adventures...casually mentioning the briars as thick as a man’s hand and the nettles the size of thorn bushes. Meanwhile….she smiled indulgently and drove smoothly east towards a pub she knew to serve great food.

Eighteen minutes later, with me still bragging and glorifying my trailblazing bash through the jungle against impossible odds….we drew up outside the pub I left from that morning. It was like time travel. The journey which had cost me litres of blood and sweat…..scars and suppurating bites from everything which crawls or flies…reduced to an 18 minute armchair chat. It was as though Cortes had spied the Pacific and then been whizzed back east by Richard Branson….or Peary had reached the pole to find a branch of the Northern Line awaiting him.

Nevertheless, we dined well and Lynda coped wonderfully with this hysterical Ben Gunn ….fit company only for feral goats. We sipped red wine and looked into one another’s eyes. Sadly, as the evening wore on, my head started to ache quite violently so rather than switch to my usual suave, seductive…albeit somewhat resistible mode…I begged to be returned to my tent for a lie down. In the interests of future yarn-spinning, I rather hoped I had picked up something not very troublesome but incredibly rare with alarming symptoms. It was almost certainly a touch of sunstroke and dehydration…..but Dengue Fever sounds better.

We returned to the campsite to find the tent had suffered a series of direct hits from evacuating pigeons . New people had arrived and pitched next door. They looked at first glance like axe-murderers…but turned out to be holidaying Baptists. In fairness, my first glances are somewhat less than reliable….although I can recommend the technique should you ever be stuck at a dull party where you know no-one. Take an informed guess at someone’s occupation( possibly leaving out “axe-murderer” ) and then sidle up and check the accuracy of your predictions…. Attractive members of the opposite sex can be allocated something trendy or glamorous should progress be desired.

I popped a couple of Paracetamol and got an early night. Thankfully the headache eased and I slept well. I was neither murdered nor baptised but rose early to break camp and pack ready for a fairly short section of the walk. I estimated it to be little more than 8 miles, but after the previous day’s bushwhacking, this was more than welcome. Besides, the final day drew nigh and would entail a much longer trek than usual….so any chance to conserve my feet was not to be sniffed at….as it were.

I trundled off into Diss which is a lovely old market town….and on that day had a lovely old market. People had flocked from miles around to buy….local produce…Chinese clothing and out of code biscuits with the ingredients listed in Turkish. The place was heaving…and so was I. A blistering hot day, a 20Kg pack and narrow thronged streets to negotiate can boost the running temperature somewhat. I desperately needed supplies before embarking on the next gruelling mini-slog through the wilderness, so dripped my way into a nearby Somerfield supermarket . the manager was a gem, allowing me to park my rucsack behind the ciggy counter while I luxuriated in the refrigerated cool air surrounding the fish counter.

Eventually I dragged myself away and made off in the direction of the famous Diss Mere… attractive stretch of water of great antiquity. In fact, being a pillock, I once wrote to the local newspaper suggesting that Atlantis could well be found in it’s murky depths. Sadly funding for an expedition was not forthcoming. And there was I thinking that the National Lottery was meant to fund local causes. I sat beside the Mere and tucked into my healthy purchases from the supermarket…particularly enjoying the Strawberry Mivvi lolly which obviously counts as one fruit portion for the “Five a Day” recommended by top nutritionalists in women’s magazines.

Thus rested and refreshed, I struck out for Roydon Fen, one of those hamlets only just off of a busy road but which belong to an earlier age when everyone kept chickens and grew vegetables. Fertile garden plots with burgeoning beans and magnificent marrows sat opposite cosy houses where everything seemed of manageable proportions.
The track led on around manicured lawns with white painted boulders and over creosoted fences before once more plunging into the wild. I had a very close encounter with a Greater Spotted Woodpecker which sat and eyed me as I passed. Further on , sheep came gambolling across a field towards me…..a sure sign that someone was about to feed them. They usually scatter like….well…sheep when I approach.
After a steady walk on a glorious hot morning, I settled to picnic on a stile…..always a useful place as the step can serve as stool or table….or indeed a source of agonising splinters.

Relatively early in the afternoon I came to my next stopping place. A campsite which I find difficulty in describing accurately. It is easy to poke fun….but it is quite clear to me that the great camping public needs some form of control. It is a rare site which does not have a sign or two laying down the law about usage of hot water…not blocking the loos with ….well almost anything….but this site really excelled.
Very neatly painted and well maintained signs pointed out where one could go, what one could do, which animals could do their doings where, instructions on what to do with it when they did, the rules for this and the rules for that…and how to tell the difference! Best of all in my view was a notice covering the use of Mountain Bikes which included the phrase” This site is not a proving ground for such devices… they are not welcome!”
Hats off to the owner really….some sites cater for happy yelling kids and wild dingo packs……whereas others prefer a mature clientele seeking peace and tranquillity along with a nice barbecue and a bottle of Chablis. He knew what he wanted and made sure that no-one else had any excuse for not knowing either!

A Tea Shoppe on the green provided sustenance for the stomach and for the eyes. It was run by the most beautiful trio of young women that I have ever seen(excepting any who know me and who are reading this). After a bone china cup of Earl Grey and a muffin… I strolled around the village before returning to the tent to whip up something rather special using Pot Noodles and various accompaniments.
Once more replete, I walked to the nearest pub, expecting a quiet evening supping a local brew and chatting to quaint old local characters. However, a band made up of bad bottomed, tattooed guys with their bits pierced was what I got. I slipped away outside to enjoy a drink in the twilight. I sat dreaming that the end of the walk was now in sight. Tomorrow would bring the end of the walk, and for all the joking about aches and pains and dodgy feet….I did now feel so very much fitter than when I set out all that time ago. The rucsack which had seemed like a turtle carapace made of lead, now sat easily on my back. I swung it up and over with aplomb….a far cry from that lumpy bag of cookery books and encyclopaedias which spun me senseless to the sofa as I practised for this epic journey. I made a phone call arranging a rendezvous with my dear friend Jan to meet me and ferry me back to civilization late the following day.

As I sipped my drink, lost in reverie, I noted how wonderful the weather had been after that first horrendous day. I smiled as I thought of that old saw “Red sky at night…shepherd’s delight” It was then that I heard the penetrating and insistent tone of a fire engine. Amazingly, a thatched cottage on the other side of the green was on fire. It didn’t look too terrible as smoke curled from around the chimney stack and the fire crew had it under control in no time. Meanwhile, the band played on.

After maybe one celebratory drink too many, I tripped back to the tent….and slept the sleep of the dead…or at least brain dead. Facing a long day’s walking, I poked my nose out of the tent to find that my paeans of praise for the weather Gods had been premature. It was raining. I took the opportunity to shave, shower and throw away any leftovers and unwanted toiletries. Determined to pare down the weight of my pack as much as possible…I mercilessly threw away things like….erm...water purifying tablets….ear wax remover and other medical supplies unlikely to be needed en route.

I packed the tent still rather damp …always a horrid experience….and strode away from the last encampment. It proved to be a difficult day in some ways. The weather was cool but threatening and many of the waymarkers had gone walkabout themselves. I wormed my way through hedges and over ditches, through new tree plantations and across cornfields before reaching the superb Lopham and Redgrave Fen nature reserve. This is a wetland paradise. Famously home to the Great Raft spider and to a herd of imported wetland ponies which wade wither deep in the water and graze on the lush plant growth…helping to maintain a balance for other wildlife.

It was a pleasure to wander through the reserve….treading lovely soft peaty soil underfoot . Walking silently, alert for sightings of deer . I learned that this Fen is the source of both the Waveney and the Little Ouse…hence my walk alongside the Waveney was at an end.

Naturally I tainted the memory of wandering in this lush Eden by getting lost, but retraced my steps and soon found myself back on the Angles Way, emerging near a large poultry farm. Soon the path headed back into swampy fen lands with an abundance of water plants and tall reeds. I left the track at Thelnetham as I had had several recommendations for the White Horse pub there. As I sat supping a pint, I was amazed by the arrival of a couple of well equipped long distance walkers who must have been not too far behind me. I had hardly seen a soul on the whole trip apart from hikers and dog walkers. Not since Breydon Water had I encountered fellow travellers. They were a lively and well travelled pair who had been yomping along behind having started about a week after me ! we swapped stories and ….at least in my case…lies… before I made an excuse and set out once more. I had a foolish fear of being unable to keep up with them if I waited until they were ready, and I couldn’t end on a low note like that….especially after the dreadful whoppers I told the couple on the Norfolk Coast before flying past them on the bus.

I marched off and almost straightaway became lost in a farmyard where the signs had gone awry. Undaunted, I frogmarched myself….which may not actually be possible…over more cornfields and through yet more sugar beet into Hopton Fen. By now I was a little off the pace for my rendezvous and started to step out a bit. It was a rather nice feeling as I realised that I had energy to spare. No protests from my feet…. Just clipping along under full power. Suddenly a wave of sadness swept over me…it was just about over….225 miles, mostly on foot ( well…and buses and a boat!) through some of the loveliest countryside one could wish for. Never very far from civilization….but at times in a wild world of bees and butterflies, animals and wild flowers…of wonderful Norfolk people who had enriched the trip. I remembered the downpour of day one and the abject misery it brought, but more than that…the kindness of Big John and his wife who took me in. the tourist office at Hunstanton saving my bacon. I remembered the campsite staff at Wells and Runton…the singing chef and the denture dancers of Cromer. The generosity of the Aylsham farmer. The swallowtail butterflies of Hickling. The awesome beauty of storm clouds over Halvergate marshes. My mind wandered back to the ramparts of Burgh Castle and to the steamer trip on Oulton Broad clutching my poorly splintered finger. I smiled at the memory of the kind and beautiful folks of Beccles and Bungay and at the joys of these last few days spent along the banks of the Waveney. The great views …the scents and sounds and textures of the countryside… birdsong, foxes barking, bees humming. What a wonderful way to see the county!

Soon I reached journey’s end; Knettishall Heath Country Park.. and found my smiling friend waiting for me. Emotionally , it could have been the Kalahari I had crossed. An incredible experience… especially for someone new to walking and backpacking. I would imagine that anyone who has walked a similar route close to the area in which they live, must have similar feelings to myself each time they are out driving the car and spot the waymarker for a long distance path crossing their route. It is hard to describe…but something similar to that expressed by Bruce Chatwin in his book The Songlines where he tells of aboriginal peoples re walking their ancient pathways… rediscovering their footprints……footprints which can never be erased.
Highly recommended.

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